Last time, I talked about all the ways sharing feelings feels unsafe and why it’s actually more risky to keep feelings out of a difficult conversation than it is to put them in it. I also explained that this “feelings layer” of the conversation was only part of the anatomy of any difficult conversation, there also being a “what happened layer” and an “identity layer.” Finally, I noted that the directors of the Harvard Negotiation Project whose book, Difficult Conversation, presents this anatomy, recommend a three-step process for including feelings in any difficult conversation in a manner that is both wise and self-possessed. These steps are:
1.) Sort out your feelings for yourself;
2.) Negotiate with your feelings; and
3.) Share your feelings without judgment or attribution.
Last time, I also offered my thoughts on how to sort out your feelings for yourself in a meaningful way. Today, I’d like to offer some insight into the process of negotiating with your feelings and also how to share your feelings without judgment or attribution.
Negotiating with Your Feelings
The idea that you can negotiate with your feelings at first seems a little ridiculous. It sounds a little bit like playing a game of chess by yourself – playing the black knight, pretending you don’t know the white queen’s countermove. The suggestion seems to be that you should be the instigator of your own psychological manipulation. But in fact, it’s not as bad or crazy as it seems.
The thing about feelings is that they arise from your perception of life. And our perceptions are generally extremely limited. It’s interesting to note that just writing that last sentence gives rise to a feeling of resistance, an objection to the premise that says: “Hey, my perceptions are not extremely limited; how dare you!” But the truth we all know is that the makings of the world are extremely complex even when it comes to things we consider far less complicated than the human psyche. In any given situation, we are likely able to count until we can’t count any more all the things we really don’t know about what’s been going on. When it comes to our perception of other’s intentions, for example, all we’ve got to work with is the suggestions offered by our friend’s actions. We can’t actually perceive the intention itself. Therefore, the emotions that arise from our perception of another’s intentions are almost always disproportionate in some way.
What all this means is that it is possible to broaden our perceptions and that, if we do so, our feelings may change. Indeed, it is possible to broaden our perceptions even if we don’t perceive any new fact, but merely the possibility of an alternative or new fact.
Thus, if I am angry that my friend has cancelled our night out at the last minute without even offering an explanation, my anger may be based on my perception of him as habitually disorganized, inconsiderate, and prone to take my friendship for granted. There may even be plenty of facts supporting these perceptions. But if I am able to step back and inquire into other possibilities than my current hypothesis, I might recall that his wife is on a business trip and this might lead me to consider that perhaps he found himself suddenly without a babysitter and too many other things going on to be able to do more than send a very short email. I might also remember mention of difficulties at work or remember that things like car accidents and family members with broken hearts call for immediate attention from out of the blue.
Just by disengaging from my anger for a moment to consider such possibilities, I broaden my perception of the situation and feel from this new distanced perspective a less reactive state of mind. Out of this coolness of reflection I begin to visualize myself raising the subject with my friend as an inquiry, as a desire to understand what was going on for him that he had to so abruptly set our night out aside. Thus, without really thinking about it, I have negotiated with my feelings. I have said to myself: “Well, yes. There’s a chance he’s taking me for granted and being inconsiderate, which would make me very angry. But maybe I don’t have to get angry just yet. Maybe I can wait and see. Maybe I should even investigate. Maybe I should even feel concern and worry that my friend is having a hard time, and not assume angrily that he is being careless.
Importantly, in this negotiation, I haven’t surrendered my intention to stand up for my need for consideration and respect, but I have disengaged from judgments that are being somewhat recklessly fueled by emotions arising from limited perceptions. From this calmer state, in fact, I haven’t even surrendered my ability to tap into my emotion; I have just stopped myself from being blindly controlled by my emotion. Now I am ready to share my feelings and when I do, my calmer presence of mind will make the feelings I share more reasonable, more genuine and therefore more powerful.
When we do finally share our feelings, it’s important to see the big picture of the difficult conversation. The conversation is not all about feelings; it’s about the facts of what happened and who had what responsibilities and intentions and it’s also about the way what happened engages our identity, our sense of who we are as good, capable, lovable human beings. But in the midst of this larger conversation, there is a place for feelings and it can be very helpful to separate this part of the discussion from the other aspects of it. That is, the other person in the conversation may not be comfortable sharing emotions either and may not know how to navigate such a conversation. By creating a little space in your thoughts separating you effort to share your feelings from your effort to explore what happened and how what happened impacted your identity, you are better able to model for the other person how to navigate the feelings conversation.
Specifically, imagine you have just said, “I’d like to take a moment to share with you how this whole situation makes me feel…” What do you do next? Well, first try not to vent, but to describe what you are feeling with a careful, deliberate air making sure to express the full spectrum of emotions you have. It is good to be complex. Owning the complexity of your emotions will make the other person less defensive because they will see that you are open to recognizing the contradictions in your emotions and to acknowledging the complexity of the dynamic giving rise to the emotions. In addition, when you describe your emotion, really try to remove all words of judgment, accusation and attribution from your description of how you are feeling.
For example, saying, “I feel like you really stabbed me in the back” is a statement that attributes an intention to betray you; it is an accusation, even if it is qualified by the words “I feel.”
Instead, if you can identify the pure feelings at issue, the description will likely be more complex, more informative, and more balanced: “I am dismayed and surprised. I had total trust that I was safe. Then, one of the people I trust most of all did this thing and that thing really hurt. It made me angry to be hurt out of the blue. I am confused why you did that thing and why you didn’t realize how badly it would hurt me. I was also embarrassed in front of my colleagues. I was suddenly worried about my job security. I began doubting my competency. And worst of all, I suddenly felt like maybe I didn’t have your friendship which made me incredibly sad.” Essentially, these are all just feelings as indicated by the bold words. Importantly, not only is this description free of judgment, but it is also free of self-evaluation. It is neither self-righteous nor self-critical in terms of the rightness or wrongness of the emotions being felt. It accepts the emotions as important without implying that they established fault or responsibility.
Furthermore, the entire description is composed of “I statements,” and even better, of “I feel statements”. An I statement takes responsibility for the subjectivity of your perceptions. It does not assume perception is fact, but acknowledges that the perception belongs to the “I” doing the speaking. “I feel statements” are additionally useful because they are only about the speaker’s emotions; others cannot argue with a genuine description of your emotion. Thus, they make acceptance of, and therefore more considerate response to, your emotions much harder to avoid.
One last thing about sharing feelings: Suppose we’ve done a good job sorting out our feelings and negotiating with them and now are really ready to tell the other person what we are feeling. Strictly speaking, this may not be true sharing. True sharing means allowing the other person to have feelings too. Thus, be careful not to monopolize the feelings conversation. Give others support in sharing their feelings and acknowledge the feelings they do share. This will help create an environment in which the importance of everyone’s emotions is appreciated and treated seriously.
Practice with these feeling-sharing skills is greatly empowering. The better you get at sorting out, negotiating with, and sharing your feelings, the better you will show up in every context as an authentic, self-connected, empathic and self-assured person, all qualities that are highly desirable, whether in a professional context, an intimate relationship, or among acquaintances in your community. Here at Family Tree Mediation, one of the services I offer is communication and personal development coaching. If you are looking for help preparing for a difficult conversation, wanting to improve your communication skills generally, or seeking a support vehicle for clarifying and pursuing your goals for your ongoing evolution, I invite you to give me a call to schedule a coaching session at (650) 762-8733 or email me at:
Photo by Flickr usergemslingused under a Creative Commons license
Oh, and I can't recommend highly enough this terrific book!